The Desert Review does an ongoing series highlighting local pastors, religious staff and volunteers, ministers and others who impact our faith communities to showcase their good works.
EL CENTRO – A humble but curious little church building with a rich history sits along First Street, directly opposite the Senior Center, like a beacon of light on the east side of El Centro.
The church has suffered the loss of its main church building, attendance declining over the years as people have moved or died, and the same hardships from the COVID fires that everyone has experienced in recent years, yet Truelight Baptist Missionary Church appears to be the smallest church that could – and continues – to carry the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ under the leadership of Pastor Avery Dees.
Dees, originally from Yuma, moved to the Imperial Valley in 1984 with a retail job opportunity when he was almost 20 years old. He grew up playing football for Yuma High School, but was “on the way to scorching hell” throughout his college life, he said.
âI was doing everything I thought was big enough and bad enough to doâ¦ live a very worldly life without the Lord Jesus Christ,â Dees said.
âI had been ‘brought up around the church but had never been a part of the church,’â he said. âI used to go to church, but I never went to learn. “
After high school, Dees got an Arizona Western College football scholarship in Yuma to play at Western State College (now Western State University) in Colorado.
After college, it was at a fitness center in Yuma in May 1982 during a conversation with an acquaintance he saw regularly working and training there that began to change his life.
Dees said he told the 19-year-old how he narrowly survived a car crash on icy Colorado roads.
âI slipped with chains and they didn’t do any good, the car was out of control,â Dees recalls. âIt didn’t just turn out; it was ripped off, and I hit the side of the mountain and turned upside down. The rear drive wheels were almost two feet from the group and a guy came over to pull me out so I could even move.
âI realize now that it was God through my mother’s prayers for her son in my straying that kept me from falling off that mountainside,â Dees said.
Once Dees graduated and returned to Yuma, he shared the conversation with the young man whom he had actively avoided because he felt “an aura of anointing” around him, he said. said, not knowing originally that the youth was a Christian.
âI was talking about those experiences and this young man said, ‘I’m going to pray with you and present the Lord Jesus Christ to you,’â Dees said, âand at that moment I heard a voice asking me. : “Are you not fed up with running?”
âHe introduced me to Jesus in prayer and I didn’t know what to say, he gave me the words,â Dees said. âI knew I was living a lifestyle that wasn’t pleasing to a gentleman, let alone God. I repented, I was sorry for the way I had lived and asked it in my heart.
âThat prayer that day in this fitness center, something powerful and merciful happened,â Dees said. âI felt a weight come up. “
Dees said he “started a different path” and began attending a few different Christian churches, reading the Bible, and thanking God for his experience and salvation.
The words of the Bible began to make sense to him as he “grew up like a baby in Christ” even as temptations returned to his old lifestyle in the form of invitations to bars and bars. others.
âIt became a whole other market when you want to know who you are, what do you have to do, who you have to be, and I didn’t know that,â Dees said.
As Dees grew in knowledge and favor with the Lord, he seized the business opportunity to move to El Centro in 1984, two years after being baptized as a Christian at Union Baptist Church in Yuma.
Soon after, a deacon in Yuma invited him to mentor the others. At the same time, a former US Navy began teaching him what he now calls “discipleship training.”
âGraciously, God has put people in my path who have been very helpful in feeding me,â he said.
After moving to El Centro, Dees founded Truelight Missionary Baptist Church and became a deacon there in 1985. Dees was mentored by then-pastor CA Williams.
“There were experiences that were happening that awakened me as a call to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and at that point my response was ‘not me because I’m in a mess’,” Dees said. âWell, I came to find out that God specializes in damage. “
Through a few attempts at odd jobs in parcel delivery and air traffic control, Dees quickly began working for Imperial County Social Services in July 1988 as an eligibility worker. He worked in child protection services as a social worker from around 1990 to 1997.
Dees obtained permission to preach before 2001 and was ordained reverend in February 2003.
âI wanted to be a servant,â Dees said, âand I said,â Lord, if I serve You, it means that I will end up serving Your people. “
Dees said that as small as the church building and the Truelight community is now, “we were never short of people who needed help with traveling … and so I wanted to serve the Lord by serving. his people as well as by teaching, living and being an example âFollow me as I am Christâ.
Longtime Truelight devotees have said they keep coming back because Dees is an effective preacher who clearly preaches from the Holy Bible.
âHe loves his people and he’s sincere,â said Shirley Hellum, an El Centro resident and over 50 member of Truelight.
âIt tells us where to go to find (passages) and not just take someone’s word for something, go find it in the Bible and read it for yourself,â she said.
âWhen other pastors are out of town, they ask Rev. Dees to preach Sunday (in their congregations),â Hellum said.
“He’s a pretty good guy,” said Deacon Charles McGee, another longtime Truelight devotee who has known Dees “most of my life.”
âHe’s very generous and caring,â McGee said. âHe helps the homeless, the hungry. He’s a down-to-earth teacher. He has a good attitude towards himself and behaves like a respectful pastor. “
Although COVID closed the small church for months, even with a congregation of around 20 families, via Dees, Truelight live-streamed their Sunday morning services through September 2021.
The homeless ministry is still going strong, Dees said, as they regularly cook breakfast burritos for the homeless across El Centro, even amid the pandemic.
Hellum said this is a testament to Dees’ dedication to ministry, speaking of a time when a car hit his parked car and Dees cycled to church for months, never missing a Sunday service.
While some might wonder why he still serves in such a small congregation, Dees said that even though it is “difficult,” he still just follows God’s orders.
âGod hasn’t told me to stop doing this yet,â he said. “So, I pray for that and I ask God to make it clear (for me). In the meantime, until he tells me not to do this, we will continue.”
âWherever it is needed, Reverend Dees is a devoted man,â said Hellum. “He’s just a wonderful, wonderful person and I love his preaching.”
âSometimes we have to hear the message over and over again until it gets in and takes root within us,â Dees said, âso if that’s what it takes, that’s what I’ll do. “
âGet the job done,â he said.